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Scent of time: The House of Guerlain

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

"A perfume is like a piece of clothing, a message, a way of presenting oneself … a costume … that differs according to the woman who wears it."

— Paloma Picasso, fashion designer

There is something fascinating in perfumes that I cannot describe. Every scent is made to adapt to every different personality and background. I’ve been entranced by fragrances since I was a small child. I remember I would sniff my mom’s various scents she still keeps in the bathroom. And what about the alluring bottles? All those fancy little glass containers I have always had a weakness for but was not allowed to touch. No way to avoid that, when I grew up, I would collect perfume bottles, not just for the beauty of the bottles but for the mesmerising juice inside and the sensations they would transfer on me.

Vintage scents are everything to me. Especially after IFRA intervention - with their specific regulation on ingredients for allergy issues - I admit I literally stopped buying new perfumes in 2018. The entire perfume industry changed after 2014, the year those new rules on ingredients came into effect. The limitation of oak moss in fragrances left a huge void of an ingredient which is irreplaceable and essential. From that time on, perfumers of any brands started a sort of crusade in a disparate attempt to find something else to act as a fixative, like algae in order to substitute the depth created by oak moss.

"Will a ban on oakmoss kill the french perfume industry?"

- The Independent, 18 November 2014

As of 2022 perfumers still have a hard time in finding an alternative to this fixative component which is so crucial in delivering depth, complexity, longevity and trail. As a result, new reformulations of historic perfumes struggle to deliver the same performance they did before with the final result of a "watered down" scent with no power. Totally different for the new creations which are just born like that and cannot be compared, they are very good but very weak. But when it comes to already existing formulations created over 20 or even 30 years ago, the risk is to deceive those customers who have been wearing the same signature scent for decades. They feel somehow betrayed because they formed many life memories with their perfume and then it changes all of a sudden and yes, usually for the worse. I think we have lost so many legends along the way. With IFRA constantly updating their rules and regulations to ensure that products are allergen-free, I see a lot of twists in the future of perfume industry. But don't worry, you can still go on e-bay and find your old favourite fragrance! It might be more expensive or look overpriced but trust me it worth the money. Vintage perfumes are the real deal!

Coco Chanel once said that a woman without perfume is a woman with no future. That is so true for me, as I feel my outfit is not 100% complete without my favourite scent, that gourmand aura which makes me feel more confident and seductive.

"Perfume is the key to our memories."

— The Perfume Garden

When I think about the brand Guerlain I immediately associate this company with the image of 1920s glamourous perfume bottles like Shalimar, Mitsouko or Vol de Nuit. But the house of Guerlain was founded well far before, in 1828, by Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain who opened his first shop in Rue de Rivoli, Paris. It was a small business where he created custom perfumes for the most important personalities of the time, such as the Queen of Belgium, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, Queen Isabella II, Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, and other royalty. He soon was rewarded by the patent of “Royal Supplier” thanks to “Eau de Cologne Impériale” Guerlain made in 1853.

Over time the company has been passed down to 4 generations of Guerlain but it was with the parfumer Jacques (the founder’s nephew) that the company created some of the most famous classics of the house, which are still held in high esteem in the modern perfume industry. Many of his perfumes are still sold and marketed today.

Among Jacques Guerlain's most important creations are:

  • Mouchoir de Monsieur, 1904

  • Après L'Ondée, 1906

  • L'Heure Bleu, 1912

  • Mitsouko, 1919

  • Shalimar, 1925

  • Vol de Nuit, 1933

Shalimar: a declaration of eternal love

More than 300 perfumes have been created since Jean-François Guerlain opened up his activity as a perfume maker but Shalimar still remains Guerlain’s flagship fragrance and the first popping into the conversation when one talks about the company range of products. A true icon and a veritable essence of femininity. I do appreciate things that have a story to tell and when it comes to evoking passionate love stories from the past that becomes more intriguing than ever. The fragrance was created in 1921 by Jacques Guerlain who worked on night and day to make a "small revolution": the first pure oriental fragrance.

"Wearing Shalimar means letting your senses take over."

— Jacques Guerlain

Shalimar, which means "temple of love" in Sanskrit, symbolises the promise of eternal love forevermore. Jacques Guerlain was inspired by the passionate love story between Emperor Shah Jahan and the Indian princess, Mumtaz Mahal, the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built. The love of the Emperor for Mumtaz Mahal was so great that he built her the Garden of Shalimar in Lahore, Pakistan (and indeed, the Taj Mahal). He created the fragrance of desire. “With its smouldering and slightly impertinent character, the star oriental fragrance in perfumery embodies skin-caressing sensuality with a hint of the forbidden.” (Guerlain).

The Art Déco fan-shaped bottle was designed by Raymond Guerlain and the Cristallerie Baccarat and it won first prize at the Paris Decorative Arts Exhibition in 1925. It is said that the designer’s aim was to imitate the water fountain, with the striations resembling the waterfalls in the Shalimar's gardens, whilst the stopper was inspired by a piece of silver that belonged to a member of the Guerlain family.

Talking about the fragrance, I cannot actually describe it by words because everyone can have different feelings towards a scent and what attracts a person can repulse another. It depends on one’s personal tastes. However, I can just say for sure this is oriental, but a gourmand, voluptuous, sensual and spellbinding one. A mysterious aphrodisiac perfume with a breeze of freshness that makes it less dramatic. The scent is enveloping and rich thanks to the powdery notes of iris, jasmine and rose and the warmth of tonka bean.

This is a real Lady’s fragrance and when I smell it, I get hypnotised and brought back to the Roaring Twenties, sit in front of my vanity desk getting ready for a nigh out at the Speakeasy Club.

THALIA BARBAROVA Anglo-Russian stage and silent film actress, 1925



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